Thursday, 22 December 2011

Should Zen be respectable?

I am sometimes left wondering where all the fun in Zen went. What I mean by this is the rogueish, baffling and challenging manner that earned Zen it s reputation as being for rowdies and rough bumpkins. The Zen world of the West is full of very mannered, educated, and quite intellectual sorts. The result of this seems to be that Zen has acquired a kind of bookish, busybody Protestant feel about it, and I can't help but feel that this is in part due to the American culture which so strongly influences contemporary Zen practice. I am going to generalise at this point, and suggest that the American culture is not one that sits easily with anything that declares itself to be useless or pointless. Whilst I am an admirer of those whose practice "engaged Buddhism", and indeed feel that I could myself be more engaged, in this engagement there lies the slight danger of making Zen into a self or other improvement programme. The real beauty, and liberating quality of Zen is that it really is useless, and that it points to the uselessness of our other activities as well. But I get the feeling that, although this is paid lip service amongst some of those who write and teach Zen in the US, that really it gets swept under the carpet: "Zazen/zen is pointless, but of course it makes your life better otherwise why bother?" I have been guilty of this sort of sentiment myself from time-to-time.
I wouldn't want to be "the bad guy", the one who says "Zen is tough, and pointless, and makes no difference" if I was trying to encourage people into Buddhism. But I'm just not sure that the role of Zen is to encourage people in Buddhism. That's not to say that I feel that Zen should be inaccessible: it should be accessible to all those who feel they are up against the spiritual brick wall and have nowhere else to go. But being accessible to this group of people doesn't mean the same as being popular. Where are those teachers now, who, like Katagiri Roshi in front of an audience of potential benefactors said "Someday you will all die"?
The scandals that have rocked the American Zen world from time-to-time will have the effect of making Zen communities tighten up as far as credentials and respectability are concerned, which is both good and bad. Good, in that people will perhaps be more careful of who they put their trust in, but bad because it reduces the role of the Zen teacher to that of spiritual leader and moral exemplar, and I'm just not sure that those things can't be done better by other sorts, other Buddhists even. Once Zen becomes about the furthering and consolidation of Zen, its unique quality is lost. Brad Warner's idea that a Zen teacher is more like  a performance artist than a spiritual teacher really strikes a chord here. A good Zen teacher, as Brad describes, won't let you give authority to them. A "bad" one, or perhaps one that is playing the role of the all-powerful Zen Master on purpose, will accept the authority given to them, and ultimately end up by disappointing and letting down the person who gave up their own power. The lesson either way is that no-one can sort out existence for you. There's a Zen story where a monk says much the same to a neophyte: "I can't piss for you, eat for you, or breathe for you and I can't live your life for you either." The "problems" in Zen seem to arise where a feeling of respectability is cultivated, and expected. I think it would be better if all Zen practitioners were seen as rogues and charlatans, and go from there. What, o blog readers, do you think?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Everyday Mind

Peder Balke  -The Tempest 1862
  The rain crashed down, and the wind raked over the zendo last night. Even the seagulls were largely silent, though a few plaintive calls could be heard above the squall. There were some new people, all trying like hell to get knees to floor and heads to ceiling, and not quite succeeding. I was lost in thought, as ever, about what I "should do" with my life. Left leg went numb but not cripplingly so, and had to niftily side-step a zafu in kinhin, though I should have moved it aside and saved the other sentient beings from its obstruction... Apparently my posture has improved of late. I always have trouble knowing whether my head and neck are in relation to my shoulders (they're on top dummy) so I have a tendency to bob about like a curious cockatoo. I was Number Three, that's to say the one who bangs the wood after Jay says "keisho" and who also hammers away at the mokugyo during the Heart Sutra. Having been out in the Zen wilderness for a while, I had lost my touch and made unimpressive plunk plek sounds with both wood and mokugyo, but found a strong sound for the old makka hannya. One of the new folks "will definitely come back", so we'll not see him again. Packing up always has that Formula One team feel about it: in zendo- takedown time trials normally we are lightning fast, but lacking Eric we were slower than normal. We troop out into the narrow alleyway, lock the door to the  building, and wander out past the bodypart-casting studio and the kinky lingerie boutique, into the windy damp darkness.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Zen Survival Handbook part II: the call of duty

I am one of those people who suffers from an excess of duty: I fill my head with a lot of "should" and "ought-to", especially where Zen is concerned. Because Zen asks us to throw ourselves in to practice, to commit ourselves, it is easy to reach the point where we forget that practice actually can be enjoyable. You could read an awful lot of Zen literature, and listen to a lot of Dharma talks before you unearthed such a sentiment. There is such an emphasis placed on having  a regular practice, that we can get to the point where we are slavishly going through the motions, as if conforming to some model of  a Zen student will end our suffering. It won't. We need to be doing living zazen, and to appreciate that, maybe sometimes we need to take a break from it. Gasp! Having said all this, there's nought worse than a Zen slacker, "It's all Buddha mind, friend." Either you're practicing the Zen way, or you ain't. Reeling off the odd koan on a forum and "going with the flow" is also not going to help your life very much.
I've used Zen as a way to beat myself up before now: I'm not doing enough zazen, I don't go to enough sesshins, I'm not sewing my rakusu quickly enough, and so on and so forth. It's not Cub scouts, you're not earning badges (funny, when I was a Cub Scout I got but one solitary badge....), you're not in a competition to see how "Zen" you can be. This excerpt is from "Not Always So",  by Shunryu Suzuki, edited by Ed Brown:

"If we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice. Even though you sit, trying to have the right posture and counting your breath, it may still be lifeless zazen, because you are just following instructions. You are not kind enough with youself. You think that if you follow the instructions given by some teacher, then you will have good zazen, but the purpose of instruction is to encourage you to be kind with yourself. Do not count your breaths just to avoid your thinking mind but to take the best care of your breathing."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Waking up to zazen

So I was talking with a good friend the other day, and explaining to them that my injury* had prevented me from keeping up a dedicated zazen schedule, but that weirdly, I was beginning to see that zazen could be done outside of sitting on a cushion, to which she replied "How clever of your body to teach you that!" The more I thought about it, the more I realised how right she was. How many injuries can prevent you from sitting meditation? Not many. It has to be something extremely localised, and persistent. So the abscess was a very particular condition, perhaps the only thing that could have prevented me from sitting zazen and therefore granting me a chance to see practice without my normal practice. There is a certain bloody-mindedness to the Way, which goes along the lines of you will wake up no matter what. So then it just becomes an issue of how much you want to resist or go along with that movement. There is something irritating about insisting that the world and the universe is beneficent, something rather of the Californian Optimist about saying that things are meant to be just as they are...but that's what I'm saying. I've always struggled with the reasons for zazen, and Zen practice in general. Recently I had the idea that zazen makes things easier. But now I'm not so sure. Zazen, I now see, is utterly useless, and I  mean really useless in all ways spiritual, emotional, and developmental. It only expresses leaving things exactly as they are. It took not doing it to see that. Which I can't recommend exactly. So now, when I get back to doing zazen, I can do so knowing that it doesn't rely on anything apart from my desire to express that. There's no duty, no "ought to", no club to join or thing to prove. Only sitting. Now if I could just convince my posterior...

* a euphemism for an abscess in my butt....

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Zen Heroes: the Marvellous Bankei

Bamkei is one of those Zen masters who you don't really hear about. He had a subversive style, amongst the Zen people of his day, because he seemed to be totally anti-practice. For him, Buddha nature had nothing to do with zazen, koans or even any sort of "mindfulness": he just insisted that whatever situation you are in, or type of person you are, you are Buddha right there and then. His attitude seemed to be that practice of any kind could cloud your understanding of your own Buddha nature. He didn't seem to insist on zazen, but his students did. He had no problem with people sleeping during zazen. He railed against the asceticism that Zen practitioners can fall into. He also left no official disciples.
"Practice" is the buzzword in Buddhist circles today. The familar koan about rubbing the tile having nothing to do with being a Buddha is wheeled out as a nod to the sort of untrammeled Zen that Bankei was spreading, but really everyone ends up still playing the Buddhist game, sitting for all their worth on a regular basis, wearing robes, building centres and so on and so forth. It's not that any of this is bad, but quite simply that the trappings can get in the way. It's easy to confuse sangha building and the "Zen game" with a real enquiry into Self, life and death. This is what Bankei pointed out.
I would recommend both Peter Haskel's and Norman Waddell's books about this one-off Zen great. Hurrah for Bankei!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Zen Survival Handbook: chapter one

Zen isn't easy. Our practice doesn't always match up to the aspirations we have.We may become slack, or ill, or too busy. We may just struggle with the classic Zen koan, as did Dogen: "Why bother with Zen?"
Often, our Zen comrades might be a little tightlipped when it comes to encouraging words. Maybe they've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner, or maybe they figure that you'll work it out on your own. Which you will. But sometimes you need help from another to be able to figure it out on your own...

"Zen is too hard"
When people say this, they usually mean one of two things: 1) they don't "get" Zen, or 2) they find zazen painful and difficult.
In both cases, you are absolutely right to feel this way. But let's deal with the former concern first.
Let's be clear: there are loads of Zen stories about people hearing a single Zen phrase or the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo or something similar, and "getting it." What these neat tales usually omit is that the person in question has been with a teacher, doing zazen and koans and whatnot, possibly for years and years beforehand. You may have heard of a fellow called Hui Neng, who "got it" after hearing someone recite a Buddhist text, despite never having had any Buddhist training. This may well have happened. Or it may not: the story of Hui Neng is more a myth intended to make certain points, rather than a historical account. Anyway, neither you nor I are Hui neng. He had his way; we each have ours. You are not expected to "get" Zen. In fact, the less getting of it that you do, the better. It is not something to be owned, known, or acquired. If you feel in the dark, unable to explain to your curious friends and family exactly what Zen is, then bravo. You are on your Way.
The latter problem, concerning zazen, is widespread and usually rears its head early on, especially if you attend a sesshin (a Zen retreat) where the zazen can be pretty intense. The most important thing to know is that the pain generally lessens with time, and/or you become accustomed to it, which makes it much less of a hardship. Be kind to yourself. If you are in real pain, then you can move. Yes, we are aiming for stillness, but we're not killing ourselves for it. Moving about with every sign of discomfort is not to be recommended because, as you'll find if you try it, it often make things harder. But everyone moves from time to time. A lot of emphasis is placed on not annoying your neighbour, at least in the Zen gang I hang out with. But don't place undue emphasis on this. In all seriousness, annoyance is good practice, especially for older hands who may be stuck in their ways...
It's not a competition. Yes, you may be the only person weeping with pain and shifting every five minutes. So be it. Zen is not about stoicism or asceticism, though it often is mistaken for both. Just don't add any stories to your pain, you know, like "I'm rubbish at Zen" ,"I'm always so weak" or "Why is everyone else having it so easy and yet I'm suffering?" These sorts of tales told to yourself will make it harder than it is. So don't do it.
In the long run, zazen actually makes things easier, at least that's my opinion. That doesn't mean that practise will always be pretty: in fact, as you begin to see the contents of your mind and life more clearly, it can get decidedly ugly. But as I say, in the long run...


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Zen and the art of becoming cliched

I'm a sucker for Buddhist writings: I own more of Shambhala's books than they do. I trawl websites and blogs and I used to buy the two big magazines before the demise of Borders, the sole stockist in my city. If one immerses oneself in all this print for long enough, you begin to see patterns forming; patterns which quickly become cliches or buzzwords.  I'm guilty of it in my own amateurish scrawlings. Spoken words I believe are less susceptible to becoming stale. But writings start off somewhat stale, and only get worse with repetition and time. So for expediency's sake, I shall engage in a little cliche busting, albeit with the greatest respect for the writers who are bravely putting their stuff out there. Apologies for the lack of slanty thing over the "e" of cliche. I don't know how to do it in Blogger...

In no particular order:

1) Domestic Zen

Yes, yes, Zen isn't all about samadhi, koan and and satori. It's about real stuff like housework and washing your pants. I love that Zen has that practical edge and isn't all crazy metaphysical hooha. But I like the hooha. I like that Zen looks squarely at the Great Matter of Life and Death, and at our small ideas about self, time, and our place in the Universe and busts them right apart. And there's some magic in that. It's not all domestic drudgery hem hem sorry Dharma. 

2) "The present moment"

What can I say? The whole thing behind this teaching it seems is to get a person to see that it's serves no purpose catapulting their mind about like a time-travelling worry machine, that everything you neeed is right at hand. But this phrase gets chucked around so much, when I hear it I have visions of time all sliced up into little bits and marching past my eyes...there is no present moment! There are no "moments"! Time is not divided up into little moment-shaped pieces, okay?

3) The koan about rubbing the tile to make a mirror

Zazen has no point, you can't become Buddha by sitting, blah blah blah...Yeah yeah, but it was his rubbing the tile that made the other dude realise his Buddha nature wasn't it? This koan is in almost every book about Zen that I pick up. That's all really.

4) Babies and their bathwater

This one crops up whenever the state of Western Dharma is up for discussion. Archaeologists of the future may well conclude that Western Buddhists were cruel to children.

5) Zen and the art of...

Okay guilty as charged. "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" was a great book, which no-one seems really to read. They just appropriate the title for their own devious ends...

I hope you've enjoyed my rant. And taken it with a large dosage of salt. 

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Zen without zazen

In the Summer I had a minor operation hem hem which has made it difficult to sit zazen. For a time it was improving, but now it's got worse again and I'm left feeling rather distant from zen practice. There's a sesshin coming up in November that I'm hoping to be healed up enough for...
But my question is this: if you can't sit, are you outside the jurisdiction of Zen? Can one really be a Zen student if you can't sit for hours whether on a cushion or in a chair? Most Zen teachers of  both old and current times recommend two things: having a teacher, and sitting zazen. Nought out of two isn't so good.
People may say "It doesn't matter, it's the spirit of the thing, not how many hours you sit." But that isn't backed up by contemporary Zen culture. I'll admit, I haven't asked if I could stand or do a long kinhin. Not being able to sit of course means that all I want to do is sit. I am appreciating  zazen in a way that I haven't before. On the other hand, not being able to do it makes it seem...arbitrary. There. I said it, and various Zen luminaries are revolving madly in their graves...or maybe not. Despite their absolute insistence on zazen, I'm sure if you could ask Kodo Sawaki or Uchiyama Roshi for example, they would agree: there's nothing special about zazen. There's nothing magical about it. If you don't do it, it's not the end of the world. But that's exactly why it should be done (when "shoulds" come up I get nervous but there you have it...). Zazen is not in that karma-world of "I do it because of this result and this expectation". It's fairly unique in being in a realm of "just do." Not that this means I should endanger the health of my posterior and body in general in order to do it. That kind of thinking really is full of traps. When I can't do it, I can't do it. As soon as I can, I do it. Is that the zazen of non-zazen?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Zen and the Art of Being Grindingly Poor

As I have pointed out before, Great Britain is hardly a hotspot for Zen Buddhism. But I think we're going to need it here soon, given the economic predictions of our leaders. The rub is this: we are all going to have to put up with having less, in a material and fiscal sense. Whilst we've got groovy holidays and lovely gadgets, Buddhism, with its gloomy-seeming First Noble Truth "Life is (or inherently contains) suffering" is not the popular choice. Now that the great global Being-Shafted-By-Bankers plan seems to be well underway, a non-materialistic yet non-theistic approach to life looks like a good idea. What is sesshin if not a boot camp for the soon-to-be-poor? I know after a week of sitting on my cushion, even a bowl of plain porridge seeems like some sort of sensory overload. Zazen basically teaches you to be wholly appreciative of anything that's not zazen.
It's encouraging for us to look back and see that there have been many times in the past when Zen practitioners lived very frugally, and yet still enjoyed rich and fulfilling lives. I think in the future things may get a bit communal, and a bit less individualistic. Again sesshin, and indeed the whole Zen approach is a good primer in this kind of getting-along "together-action" as Seung Sahn refers to it. It may seem a bit lazy, a bit fatalistic even, but I am not one inclined to protests and so on, though I daresay some of that might be needed as the purse-strings draw ever tighter. I am more interested in adapting my life circumstances and finding happiness as near at hand as possible. Also, wear and tear on the zafu aside, the running costs of Zen are pretty low. Now, I'm off to pen the best-selling "How to be poor and happy" to see if I can make my fortune before this whole sorry mess blows up...

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Hesitant Bodhisattva

“Make now your mind that of a bodhisattva”: that was a piece of advice I got from a Zen teacher by email. I have been considering for a few years the possibility of going through the Bodhisattva ordination. There are quite a few reasons why I don’t feel it’s a good idea. First and foremost is the feeling that I’m officially “joining” a religious organisation. That doesn’t sit right. Secondly there is the feeling that I’m somehow separating myself from my peers. That may sound strange, but the fact is this: the majority of people I know would regard Zen and Buddhism as being, well, a bit weird. Normally, I’m not one to mind such things, but sometimes I get tired of being stuck out on a limb. The other main reason is, quite simply, I don’t feel I commit myself enough. I often slack-off from attending zazen. I don’t feel like an exemplar of zen practice, not at all. I’m not even all that mad-keen on sesshin if I’m really honest. I should confess that there are loads of things I like that aren’t zen.

But then a thought struck me recently. The whole idea of the Bodhisattva is that he or she is busy practicing in whatever situation they find themselves in, whether that be a temple, a supermarket or an underwater chess championship. Perhaps then, a lazy and unsure Bodhisattva might have his uses, to those who are even more so. Or even just to show that there’s more than one way to skin Nansen’s cat, as it were. I think I’ve built up this crazy picture of what being a Bodhisattva is all about, but as the teacher suggested: you can be a Bodhisattva now. All beings are already deeply in touch with our life, so really we cannot avoid being an examplar of humanity. Think about it. It's kind of scary....

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The English Riots

Tonight could be another night of violence across England, as a portion of my fellow countrymen and women decide whether or not to feed the growing tide of rioting, arson and looting. There are many ways of painting what's going on: an oppressed and unheard underclass acting out their anger? Materialism gone rampant? A statement against Capitalism? A profession of love for Capitalism?
If I am disgusted at the level of consumerism evident in these acts, then I'd best be sure to check out my own desires: am I really desireless? If I am surprised by the levels of thoughtlessness shown, then I ought to recognise my own capacity for such thoughtlessness.
If we as a country are surprised that people will commit violence and engage in looting, perhaps we had better check the culture that we surround ourselves with, the endless adverts, films and games which promote the acquisition of goods, and which promote violence as a justifiable tool.
None of this is the same as saying that these acts are blameless. To say that someone is purely at the mercy of their environment is to patronise them, and rob them of their human quality. But at the same time as seeking "justice", we have to ask: what have we done to minimise hatred, materialism, and violence?
Be cool Englanders, be cool...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Shambhala: 35 under 35

Howdy Zen fans! I haven't been writing much here for a few days, for which I apologise. But I have been moonlighting on the side, writing pieces which I hope will included in a new project run by Shambhala Publications called "35 under 35". Here's a link to it:

Writing "Winter skincare do's and don'ts" doesn't come easy"
So I have been creaming off the best bits for later consumption, which is mean I know, but an amateur writer has to take his breaks where he finds them...

More posts soon, I promise.

Ta, Nick.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Hey,where'd the darned expediency go?

"In my view, American Soto Zen is almost choking to death on the efficaciousless idea of "Just this.""

This from Mike Dosho Port's site "Wild Fox Zen." You know, I agree, though I would extend the sentiment to include our tiny Zen circles here in old Blighty (that's Britain in case you don't know.) I know that Zen has come along a bit since the early years in China, and that it's not all hitting each other on the head or yelling like nutcases at one another in the hope of enlightenment. But what you get a sense of in reading the koans and tales which make up Zen folklore is the sheer range of teaching methods available to those cunning old masters. Whether verbally or physically, using inanimate objects or object-lessons from Nature, it seemed that the really good teachers were those who were ready to knock down beliefs and challenge concepts wherever  they reared their tricksy heads.
Since enlightenment is now a dirty word, however, this kind of thing is writen off. This equates to a loss of biodiversity in the Zenosphere. "Enlightenment" was only ever ateching tool, one perfect for underlining spiritual pride and ideas of attainment.There are few teachers willing to deal with students expectations of enlightenment it seems. But aren't these heartfelt curiosities the perfect opportunity for a teaching to strike home? It takes real courage to put oneself forward in a mondo, and ask a question. If the answer is simply a verbal lecture, I wonder about the point of it...
Having said this, I know that teaching in the old school way would probably scare most people off; it would probably scare me off. But I wonder if the only answer is to prescribe zazen or samu no matter what the temperament or concern of the student? I'm not a teacher, so all this should be taken with a vat of salt. But think about Gutei: remarkable it seems, because his only answer was to hold up the finger in answer. But even he had to break a pattern in order to teach, and suddenly fingers were flying about like chopped grass.
"Present moment" "Just this" and yes, even zazen: all these have the potential to become staid and ineffective. So then what?
As I say, I'm not a teacher, and neither do I even have a formal teacher, so I am spectactularly ill-qualified to talk about any of this. But that doesn't usually stop me.
If zazen becomes our only method, expecially in Soto Zen, are we not in danger of fixing on it, getting stuck in it amd imagining it to be something special? Your thoughts, readers, would be appreciated.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Spin Cycle of Nirvana

"It'll even do your cat..."
Of course, being me, I only really appreciate something when I can't have it. So this week finds me rather incapacitated after a minor operation, and somewhat unable to sit. I can hobble, I can perch, but I can't do regular-style zazen. What happens then? Can I get past pride, and attachment to form, and do zazen in a chair? I haven't yet. Being at home, and not having the distraction of work, my mind  becomes very busy trying to find things to get on with. New schemes, career ideas, things I should write: oh man, it goes around and around, a washing machine on a very familiar spin-cycle. I find also that I am an entertainment beast. I rent DVDs, I watch things on the Internet, I leaf through books casually, I write, I make hot drinks...I do everything but sit here and appreciate existence. Because that would be boring. I hunt crazily on the Internet for books to buy about Zen! Hah! Now and then, even I am sensible enough to realise, and I hope I don't come across too damned hippy here, but that everything really is right here. In my smallish lounge, with the tree outside the window, the books on the shelves, the houseplants waving gently, the gentle ache in my butt... Yeah yeah, books and entertainments and schemes are fine, they're not bad. But coming back to here? Back to now? It's all there is. And what a relief.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Phone Call Zen

Today I made a phone call that I'd been putting off for a while: since last November in fact. I had built up a complicated lump of mental machinery around and about it. It had become representative of a whole side of my life, a symbol of whether or not I am able, when needed, to take the plunge into the unknown. I must have played the conversation a hundred times in my head. I had thought about what it would be like after I had made the call, how I would feel, what the next step might be like. Part of me knew I would make the call, the other half knew that I wouldn't. It really wasn't a momentous call; but I had made it that. Suddenly, today after my usual mental hamster-wheel had spun a while, the knot of stuff kind of dropped lower. I almost made a decision to let my gut do the leading. Before I knew it, I was on the phone. I got through to a different person to that whom I expected. She put me through to an answer phone where I left a shaky-sounding message. But I had done it.

I don't like to say that "zen does this" and "zen does that." Zen doesn't do anything. But that superhero power of "not do anything" sometimes comes in damned handy, especially for a Zen worrier like me. I'm far too much stuck in my ridiculous noggin, and things never turn out how they look from in there, in my experience. But it's so easy to get bogged down in mind-mud. I don't despise the worrying or the fretting. They are part of life, they represent the impetus, the itch to grow and to seek change. But it's nice to let the dust settle sometimes.

Go on, make that call, whatever it is.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Resistance is futile

I came to a realisation a couple of months ago: not an all-conquering "I am one with the universe" epiphany, but just a common garden variety sort, and it was this: zen makes things easier.
Okay, okay, I hear what you 're crying out: I know, you have to sit a lot. Yes, that can be painful. There are weird cultural Japanese things that take some getting used to, and yes, one's own faults and peccadilloes come into uncomfortably sharp relief. Believe me, I've wrestled with the difficulties of zen, in fact I think that most of my practise thus far has been in resistance to it. And there's lots to resist in zen: uniforms, hierarchy, ritual, right-wing craziness by the Japanese and so on and so forth. Sometimes I've thought I would ditch zen in favour of Vipassana or something else that's a bit groovier , a bit more..modern, a bit more accomodating. But then, I've also realised that there's a bit of me that loves the arcane crustiness of some aspects of zen. I like that it's not too easy. I like that it's not too shiny or overwhelmingly positive in that Californian way. Because I sometimes feel a bit grey myself, a bit grim, and zen is cool with that. And you know what? I love putting on my best throaty pseudo-Japanese impression and rocking the Hannya Shingyo. It's fun. Participating in these cultural strangenesses can be thought of as our offering to the long line of zen practitioners.Some gave an arm or a finger: we can offer our bewilderment.
My resistance then, is lessening. If I remember my own good advice, that zen makes things easier, then I'll get on the cushion regularly and not flounder about trying to run from suffering. And that'll be better for everyone.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Knotty Problems

Hakuin feared the embraces of Hell. Bankei was mortally afraid of death. Dogen wondered if we are all perfect, as Buddha said, why bother with Buddhism? The great Zen masters often had some gnawing doubt early on in life which propelled them to the doorstep of the Zen temple, and ultimately to self-enquiry of the keenest sort. It was often the case that other types of Buddhists, Shinto-sorts and Confucians sent people who were particularly troubled down the road to the nearest Zen master (they probably didn't want to deal with the really mad ones), so I guess Zen is something you don't enter into lightly.
William James, the founding father of American psychological thought, divided people into two groups “once-born” and “twice –born”. The former group were the hardheaded, hale and hearty sorts who didn’t see what all the fuss was about, and why people couldn't just buck the hell up and stop being so damned wet (I may be paraphrasing the great Dr. James). The latter were the dramatic no-gain without pain crowd, who only felt at one with world after having undergone an arduous journey into the hinterlands of the spirit and then come back to tell everyone about it, much like people who’ve been backpacking to Goa. I used to think I was of the former group...I'm actually slightly envious of those individuals for whom existence presents no particular quibble.

But I wonder, does sitting on a cushion, apparently deeply interested in the  wall, whilst fervently praying that the bald man behind rings the bell before kneecaps explode like firecrackers in a welter of gristle and blood: does it really help with those existential-type woes? Personally, I  think about death a lot, and correspondingly just what life is all about (see former post). When I'm on top of my Zen game, I know that there really is no truth to those thoughts: they are just that, thoughts, no more relevant than those concerning lottery wins and ownership of small tropical islands. That doesn't mean to say that death isn't going to happen, and that the leadup to it will be fun and games exactly. It just means I don't have to live that now. Or going completely the other way, death is going on all the time, so my limited and partial view of it doesn't come anywhere capturing it. The universe, and my being know just fine how to cope with death: it's just the little bit of fretful,conceptual intellectual icing on top that doesn't.
I came to Zen after I felt, in one dramatic afternoon, that there was a hole in my life; nay, in my existence. My normal reaction had always been to stuff something in the gap to fill it. Zen is one of the few things one can do that lets you have gaps in your busyness. In fact, it encourages them. 
Have you got a knotty problem? Maybe Zen is for you. No knotty problem? You'd best get one sharpish.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Conquering Ol' Pointless

I mentioned before that it can be tough to “go against the stream” of society. Let’s be honest, being a Zen Buddhist is hardly what most mothers would choose for their precious offspring:

“Oh yes, she’s doing really well, sitting on her little cushion for an hour nearly every day! The other day, she got to ring the bell which signals the start of zazen, so the Godo must trust her. Another few years, and she might be allowed to lead the chanting. Hours and days of her life, she pours in to it, finally she’s learning to go nowhere and do nothing. We’re so proud.”

Of course, most parents are happy if their children are happy, I don’t mean to imply that all parents want is for their children to be bankers and lawyers. Zen revels in pointlessness, however, and in our culture that’s pretty subversive. We’re used to chasing after something or other. Perhaps if we could make out that we were chasing enlightenment, it might make people feel more comfortable.

“Yeah man, I was just paddling about in No-mind, everything was groovy, thought and body were calm, posture was good, then out of nowhere comes this big mother of a kensho, man this baby was ripping apart all concepts, beliefs were being eaten up like sardines at a shark disco! I tell you, it was goddamned satori, nothing more nothing less. It was all I could do to cling on and ride that sucker out to the edges of my existence. What a damned rush!”

Sigh. But it doesn’t really happen like that. There is only one consolation, though as soon as I say it I’m in danger of saying too much: zazen makes things better, for me, and for those who deal with me. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. It just does. I hear sirens in the distance….the Zen police are coming for me. Until next time, Zen fans.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Woah like totally sick,dude.

I have been ill for a couple of days at home, and have spent a large portion of my time a) watching films and b) wondering what the flying fudge I should do with my life. I have even been reading a book "What should I do with my life?" by Mr. Po Bronson, and it's one that I can recommend. Or maybe not, because I still don't have much of a clue...
I'm someone who is rarely capable of settling down and enjoying where I'm at. I like to think things are moving along, that I'm getting somewhere. In terms of Zen, this is making all kinds of trouble for myself. After all, shouldn't I just be happy with my job? It is Buddha activity after all, as much as my next job will be. Shouldn't Zen allow me to be right where I am without  adding extra confusion or suffering? Well, kind of, yes. But on the other hand, if I am malcontented, I can also find my Buddha nature in that. If I feel the need for change, that's the way it is. To pretend that I'm content would be foolish. It would also be untrue.
 There is a particular criticism of Zen and  similar practices that I never really understand, which suggests that if everyone were to suddenly feel contented and whole where they were, various social ills and causes would never be addressed. But to feel whole is not to lose your passions. The people that would be politically inactive anyway would still be inactive perhaps. But the revolutionaries, the passionately engaged ones would feel whole in exactly what they were doing too, so there'd be no reason for the process of political liberation to suddnely halt. I am living, coughing proof of that. Not that I'm a political activist. But I still agitate about my own condition: I am a true worrier of Zen.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Stink of Zen: the Ox-Tail Welcome Mat

Sometimes, Zen seems a little crazy. Going against the stream of the Game that we all play out day-to-day can be a little exhausting, and sometimes it's just damned disheartening to see impermanence wherever you look. Without a weekly visit to see some Zen friends, and the understanding of a Zen-practicing girlfriend, I would feel rather mental. On one level, Zen is everyday, it is the washing-up, the spreadsheet at work, and the waiting on hold whilst you attempt desperately to pay a utility bill to an inane computerised voice (I'm sorry, I don't understand. Was that "yes"?). On the other hand, letting go of views, living amidst impermanence, trying to live in a Bodhisattva way: these things can just seem plain bloody weird. Rinzai's "nothing to do, nowhere to go" is something I'm playing with at the moment, and with very little success. If I really "get into" practice, inevitably I start thinking "Oh cool, maybe I could write one of those tasteful Shambhala-type books, or become a groovy lay-Zen teacher. I could start a Zen school. Or maybe I could write a pithy, witty spiritual-type blog..." This is because I need something to lay hands on, something that says "Yes I am a Buddhist this is why I act funny okay?" As if I needed some excuse or some permission. But really all this could be dropped, and we could quite disappear to Zen : like a white heron in the snow, as the saying goes. Mind you, herons have got black legs, and they must have coloured eyes or that would just be just plain weird..
There's a koan, case 38 of the Mumonkan: "A buffalo passes by the window. His head, horns and four legs all go past. But why can't the tail pass too?"
This blog, this idle verbal lollygagging around that thing named Zen, this is my ox tail. Welcome to the Stink of Zen.